Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Expats by Chris Pavone



published 2012


Expats 1


Kate forced the boys to pose at Checkpoint Charlie, in front of the YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR sign on Friedrichstra├če. Kennedy was here in ’63, on the same visit that included his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, delivered down in Sch├Âneberg. Then in ’87, up at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down this wall.

Americans liked to deliver bombastic speeches here in Berlin. Kate followed that tradition with an impassioned version of her stump, If You Don’t Start Behaving Right This Instant. It was probably the chocolate that was the culprit, she announced. So a solution could be that they never eat chocolate, ever again, in their entire lives.

Their eyes were wide with terror; Ben started to cry. Kate relented, as usual, with a variation on “That’s not what I want. So don’t make me do it.”

They quickly recovered, as they always did. She set them off into the undulating rows of monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial, thousands of concrete slabs, rising and falling. “If you come to a sidewalk,” she called out, “stop!” The boys had no idea what this place was; there was no way she’d explain it.


Expats 2
 

observations: I had a terrific shock when I finished this book: I was amazed to find that Chris was a man, not a Christine. The book is so good on women-at-home-with the children, on the experience of a woman moving to a new country and trying to start up while her husband works – I am extremely impressed that male Chris could write on this subject so well.

The Expats is an excellent spy thriller, very easy to read and entertaining. Kate moves from Washington DC to Luxembourg as an expat wife: her husband’s job has brought them (with their two young sons) to this new home. She has given up her job to come – but as it happens her job was as a CIA operative. She has a long and quite violent history, about which her husband knows nothing.

She starts to notice odd things about their new life, and to wonder about some new friends, and to worry about her husband. And then things get really exciting. It’s a very good plot, one that gets more and more twisty as you go along. Quite often you can see what’s coming, but Pavone always has another trick up his sleeve.

But at the same time as being a good solid spy book, it is also absolutely brilliant on the nature of expat life, particularly for women. I think anyone who has lived that life – no matter which countries they started from or moved to – would love this book. It’s all there: the meetings at the school gate, the brisk sorting through the other women you meet to see which ones will gel, the coffee events, the endless gossip. The early days when you feel you haven’t spoken to a single adult who wasn’t paid to talk to you, and are trying to keep your children entertained in a country where you know no-one and don’t understand the routine. The fact that quite likely your spouse is having to work particularly hard and long hours in his new job, making everything that much worse. And then the slow improvement as you create a life for yourselves – it’s all there, with a CIA gloss.

Although quite hard-boiled events are mentioned, and are important, this book is not full of horrible or gruesome violence – another point in its favour in my view.

There were some nice clothes descriptions in the book, but in the end I wanted to use this passage, about a visit to Berlin. Another expat theme is that you go on trips all the time, ‘making the most’ of your host region (in this case the whole of Western Europe) - and the details of trying to make the children behave are so familiar, surely, to all parents taking their children on any trip.

Photos taken in Berlin last year by Audrey Stafford. Top is the Brandenburg Gate, below is the Holocaust Memorial.

There’s a lot more about Berlin, and spies, in the books of Len Deighton – the blog has been working its way through the Bernard Samson books in recent months. Click on the tabs below to see the entries.












21 comments:

  1. I loved this book, it captures those feeling of starting a new life in a new country perfectly. You go from being a perfectly normal, unassuming person who's willing to give anything a try, to feeling completely out of your depth in one flight. The school gate descriptions are perfect, as well as the feelings of relief when you find your new best friend, your soul mate. Chris Pavone's writing is fantastic, thoroughly enjoyed this and the sequel, thanks for the recommendation Moira xxxxx

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    1. You put it really well Jackie, that's exactly what was so good about it. You've got ahead of me with the 2nd book!

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  2. I'm so glad you put this back on my radar, Moira. When it first came out, I intended to read it, and I've heard from so many people that it's very good. I just hadn't yet. You chose a great scene to share, too. Any parent who's taken a child on a trip like this will understand; it's brilliantly written.

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    1. Yes, I meant to read it when it first came out but didn't get round to it - so glad I finally caught up with it!

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  3. Moira, this book goes on my wishlist. Kate's is a powerful character, I think, and I'd like to see how she balances her new life, that too in Europe, with her past as an intel agent. Another writer might have got the CIA to transfer her to the continent. That Chris Pavone does not walk the beaten track works well for his novel.

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    1. Prashant, I think you'll like it - some of it is the familiar territory that we know we'll enjoy, but Chris Pavone really gives a different spin to it.

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  4. I have this book (unread, of course), so I am very glad that you liked it. I have read widely varying views on the book, so I glad to see some praise for it.

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    1. I know you like spy stories Tracy, and maybe this one would be too diffuse for you, not concentrating solely on the action, but I loved the combination of a good plot and the family details.

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  5. Sounds like a good book, shame about that embargo, oh well....

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    1. It is, and very much the kind of book we might both enjoy. Still, good luck with the embargo.

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  6. Moira: I wondered where the clothes were in the post. I am glad I did not miss them when all I could see were ordinary people in ordinary clothing. The book sounds extraordinary. I shall have to keep an eye out for it.

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    1. Sometimes I cheat, Bill, when there is a book or picture I particularly want to use. And actually, it is very rare for anyone to notice - so you get my observant award for the day! And it IS a very good book.

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  7. I love spy novels - less keen on kids. Hmmm.

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  8. Sounds interesting. I'm not too keen on spy novels, but I would appreciate a book about a woman protagonist in this situation with an exciting plot. The TBR list is beyond description, but I'll star this one.

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    1. I know all about the TBR lists, Kathy, don't you sometimes wish bloggers would cover bad books, so you weren't tempted ;) ?

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  9. The TBR list is in as bad shape as the 20-year "to-do" list, lots we'll never get to in our lifetimes.

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  10. I’m an expat in a non-English speaking country – which makes finding affordable reading in English a challenge. I found the description of this book so appealing that I immediately started combing the internet to find a copy with a reasonable shipping price.
    Then by serendipity, a fellow expat in my city offered a copy for sale, which I immediately snapped up.
    Am reading now, but I peeked ahead to the short essay at the end by the author, a sort of afterword in which he explains how he nailed the expat house-parent experience (he was the house-parent) and what led him to add the spy element (which wasn’t part of his experience) to the novel; namely, that a book about nothing but endless laundry wouldn’t have been as interesting.

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    1. That's so interesting - thank you. I don't think I had that in my edition of the book. And I'm glad you are enjoying it - I hope it resonates with your experience, but not too much...

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